Science Says Plastic Still Has A Place in Fashion

Whether or not brands have done away with virgin plastics and/or are using recycled yarns made from old PET plastic bottles, the earth is still cluttered with such an abundance of non-biodegradable plastics, it’s thought to be enough to wrap the globe in saran wrap… not once, a few times.

“Plastics are here to stay,” said Svetlana Boriskina MIT Research Scientist and manager of the school’s MechE communications lab. Boriskina’s latest projects are centered around developing materials for applications in light generation, heat management and solar energy harvesting and most importantly, sustainable engineering and pursuing the best practices to produce high-performance wearable textiles.

Boriskina and her team of researchers, who work with nanophotonics, plasmonics, hydrodynamics, thermodynamics and mechanics to engineer and explore the aspects of energy transfer in textiles and garments, are striving to become part of a solution to the plastics crisis.

She and her team have found a way to use Polyethylene, a popular plastic used for grocery bags, shampoo bottles and toys, and turn it into an exceptionally comfortable woven material with luxury potential.
Due to its highly-recyclable properties, Boriskina’s team has found that with proper engineering – polyethylene fabrics can achieve better performance than their natural or synthetic counterparts. “Contrary to the common perception, polyethylene is also more environmentally-friendly than conventional synthetic polymers and cotton," as it requires significantly less energy and water for fabrication, maintenance and recycling.

And unlike other competitors on the market, Boriskina's fibres are not dipped into chemical dyes — instead her method incorporates environmentally safe dry colorings that are added into the powder, so that they are trapped into the fiber’s core and won’t seep out into soil or oceans like conventional dyes currently used by the textile industry on a broader scale. “However, the standard dyeing process is so environmentally unfriendly – turning rivers red and blue with dangerous toxins – that we want to stay away from it anyway,” she added.

“You can mix that polymer powder with anything else and then draw it together and when it solidifies all these nanoparticles get embedded and trapped within the fiber material.  They are safely inside, they don’t leak out, they are not dangling,” Boriskina said in an exclusive interview with NOWFASHION, on the sidelines of the MIT Futures of Fabrics conference last month.

Her SmartPE material, she said, can be engineered to wick perspiration efficiently and dry faster than conventional fabrics. PE garments also allow the body heat to escape radiatively, providing a passive cooling mechanism that conventional fabrics just don't have.
The process is a lot simpler than one might initially expect.  The polyethylene yarns and fabrics can be manufactured on standard textile equipment, and provide luxurious silky feel, ‘cool-on-touch’ sensation, and passive cooling properties without adding anything else.

Famous trash-to-high fashion projects include Pharrell Williams’ collection with  G-Star RAW, a line that includes denim garments made using recycled plastic removed from the oceans.

G-Star said that its denim is made from recycled polyester and polyamide (nylon) produced from post-consumer or post-industrial waste materials such as PET plastic bottles, apparel or nylon fishing nets.  In June, Prada introduced a collection of iconic bags woven with regenerated nylon called ECONYL, a 100% regenerated and regenerable yarn made by Italian textile maker Aquafil . ECONYL is made by a range of chemical and mechanical processes that recovers and recycles nylon from various types of waste, such as fishing nets, rugs, carpets and other waste materials, and turns it into a fibre that is ready for a  range of new uses. Now that behemoths like Inditex, Kering and LVMH are on the path to sustainability, doing away with virgin plastics for packaging, is one way companies see as a major step in becoming carbon neutral. On Tuesday, Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good introduced its Circular Polybag Pilot, envisaged with Cadel Deinking, a Spanish company known for removing printed ink from plastic.

Cadel Deinking recently patented a technology that is able to reduce polybags into pellets which can be used to manufacture new polybags.

Over 3,000 miles away from the Milan and Paris catwalks, Boriskina is currently working with designers on a small scale for small independent apparel and footwear companies but the possibilities are limitless.

“I would say we are trying to make something that is comfortable, that looks good, and that makes you feel good when you wear it because you know it’s been done in that kind of way,” she said, as she passed out a swathe of silky white plastic material she produced, to an international crowd.

“People don’t like to change their habits. People say they want sustainable clothes but when it comes down to the actual consumer’s decision that's not what they do. So you really need to make something that can be broadly used, that’s functional and cool, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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